By Mike Finn
During the Jeff Buxton-coaching era at Blair Academy, the heralded prep school from Blairstown, N.J., earned a No. 1 national ranking eight times … in part from the Bucs’ success at the prestigious Walsh Ironman tournament in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
As the 19th edition of this two-day tournament begins this Friday at Walsh-Jesuit High School, Blair Academy is against rated No. 1 in preseason polls. But the Bucs will not have their long-time coach who also led Blair to 29 National Prep championships in the corner.
This past summer, Buxton surprised many people in the national wrestling community when he announced he was stepping down from his post, leaving former assistant Charles Danhof in charge.
And Buxton also left Danhof with plenty of talent as nine of the 14 weight classes feature a wrestler who is nationally rated in WIN’s rankings, including four young men who can be found among the top-three wrestlers at their weights: juniors Joey McKenna (second at 126) and Dylan Milonas (second at 152) and two seniors Frank Mattiace (third at 195) and Brooks Black (second at heavyweight).
Of this quartet, three Bucs— Milonas, Mattiace and Black — also won championships in last year’s Ironman, where Blair out-distanced their national rival St. Eds of Lakewood, Ohio, by a 252.5-240.5 margin. And considering that 2011 Ironman medalists McKenna (a runner-up at 113), No. 6 160-pound Russell Parsons (4th at 152) and No. 15 170-pound Patrick Coover (7th at 160) all return, coach Danhof should enjoy his first Ironman as Blair’s head coach.
St. Eds, which won the Ironman two of the last three seasons, should once again rank among the top teams in this year’s event, especially since long-time coach Greg Urbas features four nationally ranked wrestlers, including 132-pound Dean Heil, who is ranked No. 2 and who pinned current Penn State freshman Jimmy Gulibon in last year’s 126-pound Ironman final.
The Eagles also return three other medal winners from last year’s Ironman, including a pair who finished second, at 182 (current No. 1-ranked Domenic Abounader) and 132 pounds in Edgar Bright (now ranked No. 4 at 138). The other top-eight finisher from last year’s Ironman is St. Ed’s Markus Schneidel, who finished sixth at 145 in the 2011 Ironman and is now ranked No. 15 at 152.
Overall, six current top-ranked wrestlers will be in northern Ohio this weekend for this tournament, which was founded in 1994 by former Walsh-Jesuit coach Bill Barger and will feature 80 different high schools from 13 states.
In addition to Abounader, the other four are 113-pound Zahid Valencia (St. John Bosco, Calif.), 120-pound Nathan Tomasello (Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy), 138-pound Zain Retherford (Benton, Pa.), 160-pound Bo Jordan of St. Paris Graham and 220-pound Kyle Snyder of Good Counsel High in Maryland.
Four of these wrestlers captured Ironman championships last December, including Jordan who edged Isaiah Martinez (Lenmoore, Calif.), 2-0, in last year’s 152-pound final. Martinez is ranked No. 2 behind Jordan in this year’s national rankings at 160 pounds.
Valencia, a sophomore, is one of three wrestlers from the California high school which won Cadet National championships in freestyle last summer. His teammates, who are expected to also wrestle in this year’s Ironman, are his older brother Anthony Valencia (7th at 138) and freshman Aaron Pico (No. 5 at 132 pounds).
For Retherford, the Ironman will be the senior’s first action since Pennsylvania ruled the wrestler ineligible to compete after transferring to Benton. After the season, Retherford won championships at the NHSCAs, Cadet Nationals in Fargo and the Cadet Worlds in freestyle.
Canon-McMillan High School from Canonsburg, Pa., — ranked No. 3 in WIN’s preseason team rankings — features three nationally-ranked individuals: seniors Conner Schram (7th at 126) and Cody Wiercioch (3rd at 170) and junior Solomon Chishko (9th at 145).
Eight of WIN’s Top 25 teams will represent themselves. In addition to Blair, Canon-McMillan and St. Eds, the others are No. 8 Christiansburg (Va.), No. 9 Wyoming Seminary (Kingston, Pa.), No. 12 Montini Catholic (Lombard, Ill.), No. 18 Massillon (Ohio) Perry and No. 21 Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Among these schools, Christiansburg features four wrestlers who placed in last year’s Ironman, 113-pound Coy Ozias, 126-pound J.R. Wert, 132-pound Joey Dance, and 170-pound Zach Epperly. Last winter, Ozias finished seventh at 106, Wert was fifth at 113, Dance claimed fourth at 126 and Epperly finished third at 160 pounds.